Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: June–July 1971
Producer: Ken Scott, David Bowie
Released: 17 November 1971
Bowie At The Beeb
Mick Ronson: electric guitar
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
The third song on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, ‘Eight Line Poem’ is a pared-back recording featuring just piano, electric guitar, and vocals.
Bowie wrote notes on each of the Hunky Dory songs, which were used in press advertisements around the time of the album’s release. He described ‘Eight Line Poem’ thus:
The city is a kind of high-life wart on the backside of the prairie.
The enigmatic lyrics are cryptic and opaque, combining the everyday and small-scale (“The tactful cactus by your window”) with the expansive and panoramic (“the key to the city/Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky”). The song was noted by William Burroughs in his 1973 encounter with Bowie, as documented in Rolling Stone:
Burroughs: What is your inspiration for writing, is it literary?
Bowie: I don’t think so.
Burroughs: Well, I read this eight-line poem of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.
Bowie: Never read him.
Burroughs: [Laughs] It is very reminiscent of ‘[The] Waste Land’. Do you get any of your ideas from dreams?
The song is unusual for its lengthy introduction, with just over a minute of instrumental music before Bowie’s vocals enter. It features Bowie on the Bechstein grand piano later played by Mike Garson on Aladdin Sane, here treated with a phasing effect. The song is bookended by Mick Ronson’s lead guitar, played in a country-and-western style on his Les Paul.
‘Eight Line Poem’ was performed live by Bowie during the summer of 1971, and was one of the songs played at the first show by the as-yet-unnamed Spiders From Mars at the Friars in Aylesbury on 25 September. The recording was released in 2022 in the box set Divine Symmetry.
In the studio
‘Eight Line Poem’ was recorded in June or July 1971, at Trident Studios.
The phasing on the piano is the Countryman [phase box] and Ronno’s electric guitar was recorded through a DI [direct injection box].
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Mixing sessions took place on 21, 22, and 26 July at Trident, for the songs recorded so far. Afterwards, Bowie’s manager Tony Defries arranged the pressing of 500 copies of a promotional album known as BOWPROMO. Half of the album contained Bowie’s recordings, with the other side given over to Dana Gillespie.
BOWPROMO contained early mixes of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Eight Line Poem’, ‘Kooks’, ‘It Ain’t Easy’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Quicksand’, and ‘Bombers’. The flipside contained Gillespie’s version of ‘Andy Warhol’, along with five of her own songs: ‘Mother’, ‘Don’t Be Frightened’; ‘Never Knew’; ‘All Cut Up On You’; and ‘Lavender Hill’.
Of particular interest is the BOWPROMO version of ‘Eight Line Poem’, which contains a vocal take entirely different from that heard on Hunky Dory, and no echo on the word “collision”.
BOWPROMO was reissued, with only Bowie’s songs, on Record Store Day in 2017. A 7″ single, containing ‘Changes’ and the promo version of ‘Eight Line Poem’, was also released in April 2015 as Parlophone DBRSD2015. This swapped the stereo channels of the latter song, for reasons unknown.
David Bowie recorded ‘Eight Line Poem’ on one occasion for BBC radio.
The session took place on 21 September 1971, at the T1 studio in Kensington House, Shepherds Bush, London. The recording was for an edition of Radio 1’s Sounds Of The 70s, presented by Bob Harris and first broadcast on 4 October.
The recordings featured just David Bowie on vocals, guitar and piano, and and Mick Ronson on guitar, bass guitar and vocals. In addition to ‘Eight Line Poem’, they also recorded versions of ‘The Supermen’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Kooks’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘Amsterdam’, and ‘Andy Warhol’.
These versions of ‘The Supermen’ and ‘Eight Line Poem’ were released in September 2000 on Bowie At The Beeb. The full session, apart from ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, was released on the 2022 box set Divine Symmetry.